March Madness & the harsh reality for student athletes

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A look behind the scenes.

(Authors note: the names of both athletes have been changed for the sake of anonymity)

After a long and hard winter, spring has finally come, and we all know what that means: the biggest tournament in collegiate basketball. March Madness has become a favourite pastime of countless basketball fans, including many, like myself, that otherwise know little-to-nothing about American college sports. Besides the Superbowl and NBA finals, March Madness has become the biggest and most profitable annual sporting event, and it’s easy to see why. From the number of teams, the diversity of play, and the trademarked upsets, March Madness is a hell of a sporting spectacle few can escape during the tournament’s three-week duration. However, as with every piece of theatrics, behind the scenes the NCAA and Collegiate sports is often characterized by its relentless exploitation of its athletes who are often faced with long hours, financial and medical issues, and toxic or otherwise harsh social environments.

Millions of bracket predictions are submitted every year, now a staple in many offices and social circles across the continent, and even more millions of dollars are lost or won in each of the tournament’s 63 games. As well, the tournament annually draws in approximately 1.1 billion dollars in advertising revenue, and practically every aspect of the tournament has been branded, including the iconic net cutting ceremony which is sponsored by a ladder company (no joke). However, between the commentators mentioning Cherry Coke, the cheering of the socially-distanced fans, the fast-paced play, and your own incoherent screaming at the TV after your bracket gets broken, it’s easy to forget that the athletes at the centre of the entire fiasco aren’t seeing a single cent of any revenue generated by the tournament or NCAA.

Now, if you’re a total nerd like me, you might roll your eyes and say “Boo-hoo, how hard it must be to have thousands of fans, a free ride through Uni, and then make millions playing sports”, but that’s hardly the case for most university athletes. “The fantasy of going pro or winning the Dance, the NCAA championship, is always there,” says Pat Bates, a team athlete at the University of Montana, “…but then you blink, and reality comes back.”

Bates, a third year Arts student originally from the Thunder Bay area in Ontario, went on, “I remember my girlfriend telling me when I started that only something like one and a half college players go pro and I should focus on my studies, but for most of us it’s literally impossible.” Bates’ experience was echoed by former University of Saskatchewan Husky Les Burnham, “In a given week, say mid-season, you’d have thirty hours minimum a week dedicated to it, including practice, drills, etcetera. Plus, if you were playing an away game, that’s basically your whole weekend gone. The hours were hard, too, they’d leave you drained physically and mentally and most of the time, say if you had an evening practice, it was difficult to focus on anything but the number of hours until you went back to it.”

Burnham, also a team athlete, went on, “If we were paid minimum, we would have made way more than any scholarship, which weren’t necessarily guaranteed either.” However, he also added, “[Getting paid] was never in the discussion, though. It just wasn’t talked about. For us, if we had got paid, our program probably wouldn’t have existed because our sport didn’t draw a lot of revenue, and it’s probably the same across for a lot of CIS teams.” Generally, collegiate sports in Canada don’t garner the same fan fare or popular buzz as other high-level sports. Most concentrate their entire athletic budget or focus on a few select sports, usually football or another team sport, and often these athletes’ financial needs are far from covered by scholarships. The situation in the States, however, is a completely different story.

American collegiate sports, especially legacy teams or programs such as the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide or UCLA’s Bruins, often have fanbases or viewership far surpassing most professional league teams, including those in the big four (MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL). According to Business Insider, the average NCAA Football team alone generate approximately $31 million in revenue each year, with the average for Basketball sitting around $8.3 million. The salary of football coaches averages around $1.3 million, and for basketball coaches approximately $106,000 (although many in legacy programs are paid in the 7-figure range). As a whole, the NCAA generates about $1 billion in revenue per year, and outside a very small handful of a tiny portion of high-level individuals, athletes see absolutely none of it.

“It’s exploitation, straight up,” said Bates, “The thing with scholarships, it’s enough to pay for classes, but unless you’re in [a school like] Duke or Florida, you still gotta cover insurance, food, auto maintenance, and everything else. I know some guys who work night jobs or have to support their families back home. Not to mention most scholarships require you to maintain a 75 per cent GPA or somewhere in that ballpark. It definitely takes a toll on your brain, you now, the constant level of stress.”

When asked about academics, Burnham said, “It absolutely had a negative impact [on my grades]. If you’re in a very intensive program, like Engineering for instance, solid grades are pretty much out of reach. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to have good grades as an athlete, but only a certain kind of person, like an anomaly, could do it.”

On the same topic, Bates noted, “Here [in the states], most guys are told or pressured to take fluff classes or easy programs, stuff that has pretty much no practicality outside higher academia which is completely out of scope for most guys. When your time is up and you don’t make it pro, you’re left scratching your head like, ‘Shit, what the hell do I do now?” As Burnham put it, “For some guys, the one’s who focused entirely on [sports], it likes you’re lost for a second, you ask yourself, ‘Where did the last five years go?’, and your main driver in life is gone.”    

Both athletes also detailed the atmospheres of constant verbal abuse perpetuated by head coaches, including tactics like gaslighting and a severe lack of concern for the overall health of their athletes.

 “I remember one practice where I was just off the whole time,” said Burnham, “No matter what I couldn’t do anything right. I took a break in the hallway to gather my thoughts but when I came back it was the same. I was a key player at the time, so coach was extra hard on me the whole time. It got so bad that I even snapped back and left early, which I never ever did, that kind of thing can get you booted off the team. What I learned later what has happening was that my blood sugar was dangerously low, and I was on the verge of entering a diabetes coma and dying. I didn’t know I had a condition at that point. When I came back the next day, I explained the situation to coach, and his reaction shocked me. He pretty much shrugged it off, like almost dying wasn’t an adequate excuse for a lacking performance, and what he said amounted to, ‘Okay. But still, go fuck yourself.’”

Lastly, both were asked if they had to do it all over again if they would have still chosen to be student athletes. “I would’ve gone to a different school or program,” said Burnham, “Whether it has any effect on your resume really depends on who’s looking at it.” Bates gave a similar answer, “It’s hard to say since I’m still in the middle of it. I wish I would’ve known more about everything that came with it and the constant state of stress, but there’s still something, I dunno, magical about the atmosphere, y’know, being a team and all that, winning against adversity.”

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